How To Deal With Any Avalanche

Eric S Burdon
Photo by Gylfi Gylfason from Pexels

30 minutes.

If you're ever caught in an avalanche, that is how much time you have in order to survive. A skier over the past weekend knew this all too as he managed to survive one after falling off a 50-foot-cliff in Colorado.

The sad reality with surviving an avalanche burial is the fact that they are very rare to pull off, according to Jake Hutchinson, an avalanche rescuer and safety instructor in Utah. This is combined with the recent studies showing avalanches increasing in severity due to climate change.

Hutchinson pointed out as well:

"That's the hard part about the avalanche rescue world is that we very rarely can get people there in time to make it a live find. Realistically, people have a really a pretty good chance of survival if they can be fully dug out in the first 15 to 30 minutes of burial."

Hutchinson also has been working in avalanche rescues for almost 30 years. He's admitted that he's recovered countless bodies at this rate. In his experience what kills isn't the obvious cold and hypothermia. It's the lack of oxygen.

That lack of oxygen is why there is such little time needed in order to survive an avalanche.

Understanding Where Fatalities Stem From

Being able to survive an avalanche doesn't just mean knowing there is a small window of survival. Furthermore when it comes to rescues, it can take several days in order to find people so you can't bank on just holding your breath.

It's important to know other facts such as where fatalities stem from.

For one it's not just the lack of oxygen once you're buried. As Hutchinson explained, avalanche fatalities really come down to human error. About 90 percent of avalanche incidents are caused by either the victim or by someone in their group.

The other issue is lack of training. As Hutchinson explained:

"You're walking out there to ski, and you don't take at least a basic avalanche course, you might as well be crossing a highway with a blindfold on. You might make it across, you might not"

The advice might be harsh to some people, but once you're involved in over 50 avalanche resucues and only managed to save a handful of people, it puts into perspective how deadly avalanches can be.

He continues:

"I think people underestimate either the potential of a slope, like what kind of avalanche it can create, or they have overconfidence in what I call margins, their margin between being Safe and hazardous."

Knowing When Avalanches Can Happen Is Key Too

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a lot of the avalanches will happen after snowstorms on slopes that are on 30 and 45-degree angles.

Beyond this, they can also happen where there is a weak layer of snow underneath snow that has freshly fallen. That environment creates layers of snow where the layer underneath isn't able to stick well and causes the other snow to slide off. This can be created through changes of temperatures between the layers or if a layer of frost gets buried under freshly fallen snow.

These instances are bound to happen more often now as the climate begins to warm up. A study in Nature in 2021 predicts these conditions are ripe to cause more large-scale avalanches. The study also states there is a potential increase in magnitude events driven by the warming temperatures and spring rain.

Hutchinson reinforces that study by saying he's seen an increase in large avalanches in recent years:

"Absolutely. I think this current period has had some of the largest, late December early January avalanches, I remember seeing ever, and they're widespread all over the West."

What To Do If You End Up Buried

Hutchinson emphasized that the best way for people to survive an avalanche is to be around well-trained partners that have proper avalanche rescue gear. And even with all of that, it doesn't always mean that the team will get there in time to make any difference.

In the gear department, it's advised to have three tools that are an absolute must:

  • A beacon
  • A shovel
  • And a probe

Another prudent step to take is get the forecast before heading out skiing as well. If it doesn't look safe, avoid the area. It never hurts to check the avalanche forecast (site here) and look up more information for how to avoid avalanches entirely (site here).

It's understandable that wanting to ski is a delight and has a lot of dopamine behind the activity. Even telling the stories about your travels is an added bonus. However all of that gets wasted if you get caught in an avalanche and you're not prepared to handle it. No matter the cool thing you did, no one will know about it unless you are able to get back home safe to talk about it.

In the end with any winter sport, the most important part is being able to come back from the event satisfied.

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